At a Times Square Landmark, a Blend of ‘Brash and Beautiful’
[01-24-2014] Who are America’s four best-loved actresses?
If you answered Ethel Barrymore, Marilyn Miller, Mary Pickford and Rosa Ponselle — admittedly, a long shot — you’re going to be delighted to know that four diminutive marble statues of these larger-than-life theatrical figures have returned to their golden niches in the landmark I. Miller Building at Broadway and West 46th Street.
The statues, by Alexander Stirling Calder, were unveiled in 1929 and taken away in 2012 to Forestville, Md., for reconstructive surgery. After I. Miller closed in the 1970s, they were neglected while the once-elegant store — “The Show Folks Shoe Shop Dedicated to Beavty in Footwear,” as it says under the cornice — tumbled down market, ending up as a T.G.I. Friday’s chain restaurant.
The clothing store Express is to open in the space next month as part of a larger retail development by SL Green Realty and Wharton Properties. The project includes the I. Miller Building, 1552 Broadway, and the abutting Actors’ Equity Building, 1560 Broadway, which wraps around I. Miller in an L shape.
“The sculptures of the actresses in their gilded niches celebrate the connection between arts and commerce,” said Edward V. Piccinich, an executive vice president of SL Green.
What is most astonishing about the sumptuous restoration of the I. Miller facade on West 46th Street is that it was accompanied by the construction of a 150-foot-high LED sign that towers over the store but seems thoroughly appropriate.
Admitting that the project had presented “complex regulatory issues” for the Landmarks Preservation Commission, Robert B. Tierney, chairman of the commission, said, “I believe we have found creative ways to preserve both the very large, image-rich scale of the Broadway facade without compromising the delicate, classical detailing.”
Tim Tompkins, the president of the Times Square Alliance, agreed. “It’s the perfect Times Square blend of the brash and beautiful,” he said. “Or the historic and the histrionic.”
Architects on the project, including Jonathan Marvel of Marvel Architects and Richard Pieper, director of preservation at Jan Hird Pokorny Associates, argued persuasively that the I. Miller Building had been intended from its inception to serve as a base for big signs. There used to be 3,500 square feet of signage. The new LED video installation, by SNA, has seven screens with a total of 8,500 square feet.
That’s in striking contrast to the scale of the statues in the third-floor niches, which are slightly less than life-size. They reflect the strong bond between Israel Miller and the theatrical profession, for which he began making shoes in 1895.
Actresses asked Mr. Miller to make shoes for their personal use, according to the landmark designation report, and the carriage trade followed. Mr. Miller opened his first store in 1911 in a four-story tenement at 1554 Broadway. Though the tenement and its neighbor at 1552 Broadway were completely remodeled in 1926 by the architect Louis H. Friedland into the I. Miller Building one sees today, the original facade of No. 1554 still exists under the sign. In 1927, the public was invited to choose whom to honor in the four niches.
“Who are America’s four best-loved actresses?” a ballot form asked. “Glance at the vacant golden niches! Perhaps you can instantly picture your favorite in drama, comedy, opera and screen, whose statue you would like to see in each of these niches, looking out on, and being observed by, Broadway’s marvelous throngs!”
And the winners were: Ethel Barrymore as Ophelia, for drama; Marilyn Miller as Sunny, for musical comedy; Mary Pickford as Little Lord Fauntleroy, for the screen; and for opera, Rosa Ponselle as Leonora (later changed to Norma).
“They were in extremely bad condition,” said Mark J. Rabinowitz, senior conservator and executive vice president of Conservation Solutions, the Maryland studio that took the statues in. “The marble was subjected to a lot of deterioration because of exposure to pollutants in Times Square and unfortunately required pretty substantial restoration, more than one would want.”
To be graphic about it, Miss Barrymore had lost two inches or more from the top of her head. “Some had entirely lost all the features of their faces,” Mr. Rabinowitz said.
A purist conservation approach would have been to accept the damaged faces as they were. But because the very idea of the I. Miller statues was to depict commonly recognized celebrities, Mr. Rabinowitz and colleagues used a patching compound, matching the marble, to recreate the facial features somewhat.
While working on the I. Miller sculptural group in 1928, Alexander Stirling Calder had occasion to visit the Weyhe Gallery at 794 Lexington Avenue. There, a young sculptor was having his first one-man show in New York, featuring caricature portraits fashioned from wire, including one of Josephine Baker.
He was Calder’s son. You may have heard of him.